Riding 101

Fascination with horses seems to strike everyone at some point. If you are one of those determined and persistent horse lovers, you may be shopping for riding lessons. This is not as simple as a walk through the yellow pages. With the wide variety of riding styles and disciplines, people who are not experienced equestrians may feel overwhelmed.

Should you ride English and learn to jump? Western so you can barrel race? Maybe you'd like Dressage…where to begin?

In some part, the riding discipline you select may depend on the area in which you live. Both Western and English riding proliferate nationwide, but one may be more popular in certain areas of the country. That may dictate the barns to which you have access. And, while it's true that good horsemanship is good horsemanship no matter what type of saddle you're sitting in, there are differences in the learning process.

Jo Struby of Stephen City, Pa., known as the "teacher's teacher," gives seminars and clinics to riding instructors. She points out that the riding style you begin with may not be the one you ultimately choose. For that reason, it's important to begin lessons in a barn that offers a variety of disciplines. One of the biggest mistakes beginning riders make is to "specialize" too soon. Sometimes, they'll have a scare – for instance, jumping – and decide to give up riding. An instructor whose experience is broad enough to encompass several disciplines might steer that person toward Dressage, instead, where jumping isn't necessary.

Personality and preferences play a part in the type of riding a person will enjoy. An organized individual might enjoy Dressage, with its precision and beauty, notes Struby. A detail-minded student may enjoy the Hunter ring, with its polish and style. A more adventuresome type might want to explore Foxhunting, Western games or Endurance riding. If you know that you want to jump, you'll be riding English. If you're intrigued by speed and games, Western Gymkhana is for you.

The major decision facing beginners who don't know what type of riding they would like is whether to learn Western or English riding. Your first discipline will be governed by which you choose, although there are parallels in both styles. The primary difference between the two is the type of tack worn by the horse. Western saddles are heavier than English saddles and have a horn. They also offer a bit more security to a novice rider because they are more substantial.

In terms of competition, Western Pleasure or Reining and Dressage all include precision movements and style. Dressage has been likened to ballet on horseback, because it requires a specific pattern of movements performed in a predetermined routine. The difference between the two is that you show in a group for Western Pleasure, and alone in the ring in Dressage and Reining. Tack and clothing worn by horse and rider vary as well.

If you are the adventuresome type, you may want to consider Gymkhana if you ride Western, Eventing if you ride English. Gymkhana includes a variety of games ridden at speed, such as Barrel Racing – running the horse around a series of barrels – and Pole Bending – riding a slalom course through a series of poles, among others. Eventing, considered the triathlon of horse sports, involves three English disciplines – a Dressage test, a round of Show Jumping and Cross Country, in which horse and rider travel over fixed obstacles on courses upwards of a mile across country.

Western riding also includes Cutting, Competitive Trail and Roping. Cutting requires the horse to isolate a steer from a group and keep it separated for a set period of time. Roping requires horse and rider to follow a single steer released into a ring at high speed, lasso and contain the steer. This sport demands considerable athleticism on the part of horse and rider, since the rider must dismount and tie the steer's legs while the horse remains still.

Western Competitive Trail classes call for the rider to navigate a series of obstacles in a ring such as would be found on the trail. The sport is judged on the rider's ability as well as the horse's obedience.

Most English disciplines other than Dressage require jumping. Huntseat offers competition both on the flat and over fences, and is judged on style as well as accuracy. The judging criteria for Hunters includes a specific head carriage, form and a calm demeanor while on course. Show Jumpers, on the other hand, are judged on accuracy and speed as they ride against the clock. Style is not an issue here, only the ability and willingness to jump and be quick.

Endurance riding appeals to those who enjoy the trail. Endurance riders compete over a distance of 25 to 100 miles on horseback. The condition of the horse is paramount in this sport, and the horse is checked at various points along the course to be sure that he is fit enough to continue. Hunter Paces, ridden in both English and Western tack, are a scaled down version of competitive trail riding and are ridden in teams of two or three. Courses range from five to 15 miles and usually include optional jumps. The riders closest to the optimum time, set prior to the pace, win.

The best way to get a feel for a variety of riding styles is to visit stables or shows and watch. Go to several competitions, if possible, and see which one interests you. A Hunter/Jumper show will give a realistic flavor of the excitement of jumping, while a Western show will illustrate Western Pleasure riding and Gymkhana games, both vastly different.

If possible, talk to people involved in the riding programs you observe. Camaraderie is a large part of the riding experience, particularly for youngsters. A shy or easily frightened rider may not want to jump. But either Western Pleasure or Dressage may appeal to a young analytical mind. An adventuresome thrill-seeker will enjoy the world of Jumpers, where speed and accuracy count. Western Trail classes or Hunter Paces will provide hours of enjoyment for a child who loves to be out in the open with nature.

The most important requirement for any type of riding is that it should be fun. Safety must be first, but fun should be second. If you aren't enjoying yourself on horseback, don't be afraid to experiment with another discipline. With the variety to choose from, there's sure to be one for you.